published: Friday, September 21, 2012
Lake tightens belt, tax rates stay the same
GREG JONES | Staff Writer
Lake County commissioners have tentatively approved a 2012-13 budget of $383 million, which is about $37 million less than this year's spending package, while keeping the same millage rate at 5.93 mills.
The commission agreed to keep the general government millage rate at 4.73; ambulance portion at 0.38; the stormwater, parks and roads portion for 0.49; and the Fire Rescue/Emergency Medical Services portion of 0.32, which kept the millage rate at 5.93.
The only millage rate that appears to be going up is a separate tax land rate needed to pay for a $36 million bond referendum approved by the voters eight years ago to buy public lands to protect open spaces and improve water quality. The commission tentatively agreed to raise this rate from 0.11 mills this year to 0.19 mills next year to generate an addition $1 million, an increase the county says it needs to keep up with the bond payments and maintain a good credit rating.
"It is not a huge tax increase. It is only about an $8 increase on a home valued at $100,000," Lake County Budget Director Steve Koontz said.
Koontz said the county is getting less revenue while expenses are growing, which has resulted in a gap of about $17.2 million in the general fund portion of the budget. The general fund pays for Medicaid, constitutional departments such as the sheriff's department and the clerk of courts, and other services.
The county has seen a 29 percent decrease in the general fund since 2008 because of rising costs and shrinking revenue, according to county records. Among the 67 counties in the state, Lake had the ninth biggest decrease in property value by percentage, according to Florida Association of Counties.
The county hopes to cover this gap with about $34.5 million left over from this year's budget, with the remainder going into reserves -- leaving about $17.3 million left for reserves. This would create a reserve fund of about 14.4 percent of the total budget, which is slightly less that the 15 percent officials would like to see.
"To cut that gap, you have to either reduce expenses and increase revenue or both," Koontz said. "We reduced expenses, but revenues went down, too. We didn't bridge that gap very much for next year."
Commission Chairwoman Leslie Campione and other officials said the gap was caused by a 6.2 percent decline in property values this fiscal year, which has contributed to a 34 percent drop seen over the last six years.
Koontz said the commission could have raised taxes by using the proposed rollback millage rate of 6.38 mills, which would have allowed the county to bring in the same revenue as the previous year, to lower the gap.
Commissioners such as Sean Parks and Jimmy Conner have discussed combining programs, such as fire and ambulance, to save money. Other officials have even talked about changing how services are delivered and possibly getting rid of some programs.
"It will require sacrifices," Campione said. "It will require a change in the way services are delivered. It will involve a review and a potential elimination of programs."
The county will have final public hearing for approval of the 2013-14 millage rate at 5:05 p.m. Sept. 11 at the commission board room in Tavares.